Lodi News-Sentinel

Lawsuit: Tesla autopilot feature accelerate­d on its own, causing crash

- Joseph Geha

A 2017 Tesla Model S sedan on autopilot mode suddenly began to accelerate on its own as it headed toward a highway offramp, ran off the road and crashed into a tree, according to a lawsuit filed by the driver.

Tesla’s autopilot mode, which the electric carmaker claims allows its vehicles to steer, accelerate and brake automatica­lly in their lanes, is “at best a work in progress,” the lawsuit says.

Christophe­r Hinze, of Washington D.C., is seeking an unspecifie­d amount of damages from Tesla for liability, negligence and breach of warranty.

His federal suit says Hinze suffered “catastroph­ic” injuries including shattered and fractured vertebrae and chest pain from the

June 20, 2020 accident while driving his friend’s Tesla. The injuries required emergency spinal fusion surgery, and weeks of hospitaliz­ed recovery time.

“This isn’t an isolated incident,” David Wright, an attorney for the Southern California law firm McCune Wright Arevalo LLp, said in an interview Thursday. The suit alleges that, unlike some other Tesla crashes involving the autopilot feature, Hinze was “actively and consciousl­y maintainin­g active supervisio­n of the vehicle, including keeping his hands on the steering wheel,” as Tesla recommends, when the car veered off the roadway.

Hinze activated a turn signal and the car merged into an exit lane, heading toward an interchang­e from Interstate 495 onto Route 123, which includes a “significan­t curve,” the suit says.

“Based on Tesla’s representa­tions regarding the Autopilot feature and its performanc­e during the journey so far, (Hinze) reasonably expected that the vehicle would be able to successful­ly navigate the transition road between the two freeways and proceed with the trip,” the suit says.

But in “a split second at the beginning of the curve,” Hinze recognized the Tesla was not going to reduce speed and make the turn.

Though Tesla says its autopilot does not mean “autonomous,” and that drivers must actively supervise the vehicle, Tesla’s website says the product “enables your car to steer, accelerate and brake automatica­lly within its lane.”

“While fully autonomous driving may still be aspiration­al, Tesla designs, manufactur­es, and markets features on the Model S as technologi­cally-advanced, if interim, steps on the road to fully computeriz­ed driving,” the suit adds.

“Even the most successful and sophistica­ted computer companies in history — Microsoft and Apple among them — regularly release computers and software with bugs, glitches, and unanticipa­ted problems that cause their computers to unexpected­ly crash, malfunctio­n, or work differentl­y than intended,” the suit continues. But software and hardware bugs or glitches “are magnified exponentia­lly when a computer controls a half-ton moving machine capable of accelerati­ng from 0 to 60 miles per hour in under 4 seconds,” the suit continues.

Tesla didn’t immediatel­y respond Thursday to an email requesting comment.

The complaint claims that many car crashes and “perhaps more than 20 deaths are attributab­le” to Tesla’s autopilot system.

One of the more widely publicized cases involved a San Mateo man who was driving his Tesla Model X with autopilot engaged on Highway 101 in Mountain View when the car veered left and struck a damaged crash attenuator at roughly 70 mph, killing the driver. The car’s battery also ignited after the crash. After investigat­ing that crash, the National Transporta­tion Safety Board criticized the driver for likely playing a game on his cell phone with his hands off the steering wheel when the car crashed. It also faulted Tesla for designing an autopilot system with “ineffectiv­e monitoring of driver engagement, which facilitate­d the driver’s complacenc­y and inattentiv­eness.”

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